Wonderful concert from Ryan Wigglesworth and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields  

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Wigglesworth, Mozart, and Ravel: Sophie Bevan (soprano), Academy of St Martin in the Fields, Ryan Wigglesworth (piano/conductor). St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, 6.8.2021. (MB)

Sophie Bevan (c) Sussie Ahlburg

Ryan Wigglesworth – Piano Concerto: ‘Notturno’
Mozart – Piano Concerto No.12 in A major, KV 414/385p
Ravel – Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé
Mozart – Concert Aria: ‘Ch’io mi scordi di te … Non temer, amato bene’, KV 505

The ASMF’s concerts at the church in which it was born and from which it takes its name were rare musical beacons during the few occasions last autumn when performance and attendance at performance were possible. The two concerts I was able to attend — maximum audience of thirty, for reasons best known to whichever eminent statesman was then making such decisions — meant a great deal to me. Here stood another in that line, albeit in slightly brighter times. Ryan Wigglesworth joined the Academy as both pianist as conductor, with Sophie Bevan the soprano soloist for the last two items.

First, though, we heard some of Wigglesworth’s own music, the ‘Notturno’ from his Piano Concerto. According to the composer, this movement, in which chamber orchestra is reduced to strings and harp, ‘is a kind of fantasia on a Polish folk song I first heard sung, movingly, around a late-night campfire’. That I only learned after the event, but heard, following a (relatively) long string introduction, a piano solo, clear and directed (combining well in retrospect with music by Mozart and Ravel), sometimes in dialogue with harp, which seemed to set up material for subsequent variation and development. There was, I felt, a sense of lament, or at least of bitter-sweet lyricism. Henze with an English accent was one thought that came to mind, though perhaps that said more about me than anyone or anything else. I should certainly be intrigued to hear the rest of the work.

Without a break, the players moved into the first of Mozart’s two A major Piano Concertos, No.12. Wigglesworth’s direction may have been on the brisk side by historical standards, but not really by those of our own time. Most important, it yielded. The ASMF offered, as is its wont, cultivated and variegated playing. There was to be heard from all fine, seemingly instinctive senses of line and fun, inextricably interlinked. The opera house was rightly an inspiration but form, quite rightly, was communicated as of the concert hall. This is a concerto readily underestimated, but it was not here. If, in the slow movement, I occasionally missed the cushion of a larger number of strings, I should stress ‘occasionally’. For there was no gainsaying the excellence of playing, nor this movement’s role as the emotional heart of the work. Songful yet ever-developing, it was sometimes blighted by a mysterious high-pitched electronic sound from somewhere in the building (I presume), yet was never obliterated. The finale was keenly responsive and endlessly surprising: the spirit of Haydn, perhaps, yet unquestionably directed by Mozart, whose cadenzas were employed with great imagination by Wigglesworth.

I think that may have been the first time I had heard the Mozart concerto in the flesh: testament to just how narrow the benighted ‘repertoire’ has become, even in the case of its most widely acknowledged geniuses (if we may still use the word). It was also the first time I had had opportunity to hear Ravel’s Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé, save on record. Why do we not hear them constantly? Who knows? This, at any rate, was a performance to savour. Thinned down to a delectable chamber ensemble, the Academy offered opening string quartet harmonics that, whilst perfectly in keeping with Ravel’s style and language, seemed to peer across to Schoenberg and perhaps even forward to Ligeti. Etched like waves, they prepared the way for the vocal line to sail. In the second part of this first song, ‘Soupir’, a French vision of Vienna emerged from the string quartet. And what harmonies there were to be heard, not least from voice against, or rather with, piano. ‘Placet futile’ sounded a little more operatic, even before the vocal entry. Inviting, sensuous, and knowing in its mock-innocence, such qualities were both added to and questioned by Bevan in a garden of distinctly sunnier delights than Pierrot lunaire, whose ghost unavoidably hovers here. The instrumental introduction to ‘Surgi de la croupe et du bond’ seemed to long for something beyond: temporally or geographically, maybe even both. The ‘Asie’ of Shéhérazade? It unfolded, pli selon pli.

Finally, Mozart’s ‘Ch’io mi scordi di te … Non temer, amato bene’, KV 505. The opening recitative was well handled by all, the following aria slightly static at first but increasingly dramatic as it progressed, so perhaps that was a deliberate strategy. It benefited from fuller-throttled operatic treatment than anything heard previously, not only from Bevan on superlative form, but from the Academy and Wigglesworth. Here, if only in concert, was a true successor to Idomeneo from the seria-deprived (though never quite, as is sometimes claimed, seria-starved) Vienna of Joseph II. It made for a resounding, resplendent culmination to a wonderful concert.

Mark Berry

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